My grandson, what is a complex system?
(I) Letters of complexity sciences to my grandmother
Iaia, today I am going to talk about complex systems. In this world, many different complex systems exist such as a cell, a persons, a team, a sport, the financial market, the earth… but to make it more entertaining, we will talk about the complex system that you have most influenced, invested and contributed throughout your life: the Trias family. I would like you to visualize it enjoying a sunny day, all together, at the summer house of Can Valentí.
Before proceeding, from the heaven you have earned, tell Saint Peter to recite the text to you or click on this link to see the version translated into Catalan. You can read it with the grandfather, he might be interested and get to know me a little better.
The Trias family is made up of different cousins, aunts, partners, pets... a very important part of the system are these components. As a family, we come together in different environments that influence the way we live and are. For example, at your house in Montcada centre, in Can Valentí... and so many other places —improvised or planned— where we shared and continue to share moments.
Family components are very important, yes. But, as I have been explaining in some blog posts, the environment is key to understand a specific complex system: the Trias family —like any complex system— cannot be explained without taking into account Can Valentí. What makes us special as a family? From my point of view, the secret is not in the members themselves or in the specific environments. From my point of view, the key lies in how we connect with each other wherever we are.
I remember all our talks alone talking about the grandfather and life; moments when you and I interacted. You shared your wisdom, I expressed my uncertainties. We connected, we shared... and the magic happened: those moments —at least for me— made me feel immense love. Without our relationship, the magic of the invisible that could not be seen or bought would not have appeared. And that is what made it special.
Feelings similar to those have appeared after so many years connecting all of us every Sunday, for example. If we are a big group in Can Valentí and a sunny day accompanies us, we will probably end up playing a game of volleyball in the backyard. What makes it special? Play volleyball? Winning? No, connecting to each other in an idyllic setting, what emerges from these moments is easy to feel but difficult to explain. I know you already understand me.
This is one of the other keys to understanding a complex system, the importance does not reside in the components themselves, but that thing so magical and beautiful that emerges from the relationship between them and the nature that is surrounding. The family has a magic that none of the individual components can provide because this emerges when we interact with each other and the environment. For example, connecting together, we enjoy great moments of joy and depending on the environment that surrounds us, we behave differently. As I said, if the environment is Can Valentí, it is likely that we will end up playing volleyball; but if the environment is your home, it is more likely that after lunch we lie down on the couch laughing together. I think that is why they say that interaction and emergence are the main culprits in the fact that in a complex system the "whole" is much more than the sum of its parts. We are like an anthill—another fantastic example of a complex system—in which the union between ants makes the force, and phenomena appear that are difficult to imagine. You can see it in this video and you will understand. In a complex system, all components are important and irreplaceable. I think you understood this very well: I remember how you always told us that you loved all of us equally.
All that I explain means that we cannot isolate the components one by one if we want to study a complex system. I mean: when I talk about the family, I do not describe the family tree member by member and then do the same with the environments. Quite the opposite: I start with the "whole", from the top: I start by explaining, for example, when we all gather together for a family lunch in Can Valentí, with Christmas Poems or on a hike in Aigüestortes. Why? Because if I spoke component by component, we would miss the "whole", the invisible force that unites us and that makes me feel so happy. To fully understand the Trias essence, we cannot be isolated from the whole and our environment, because we would lose everything that they give us.
Iaia, you must be wondering why I am telling you all this. Believe me, I also wonder why I am curious about all this nonsense and shit. As I research, I see that we live in a world where we do not quite understand that the most important thing in most things is the "whole": that invisible thing that appears from the interaction of the components and the environment. I see it now when I coach padel, I already saw it coaching basketball, also in the university courses, in many health programs or environmental policies... I think we have to learn to live with and as complex systems. Thanks to Descartes and his reductionist thinking, we often assume that living beings function like automatons. His idea that we can be reduced to the components in order to understand a living being and that the "whole" is the simple sum of the parts, still has a lot of influence today. I think it has helped us a lot throughout history, but it is also time to move on. But… we will talk about that another day.
In a car, if the battery fails, it does not work anymore. Then we go to the mechanic and change the component so that it is fixed and continues to work well. In a complex system like our family, can we change a family member as if nothing happened and it will remain the same? What a stupid question, right? However, in a complex system, when a component fails, we can keep moving forward, we do not need to go through the mechanic every time. Remember how, even though your legs hurt, you always kept going with your strength? Maybe less quickly, but you did not stop, you kept going. We are able not to stop, to adapt and continue as Juan Sánchez shows us in this example and how he plays the piano.
If we do not change our mentality and continue to think like machines, we will lose all this biological intelligence that nature has given us but that this society of immediacy, which gives us everything done and chewed, which does not stimulate creativity... does not help us to use. A living being, a football team, a couple relationship, a society, a family... is much more than the simple sum of its parts, something that machines —and the new artificial intelligence included— I doubt can achieve.
Iaia, I have went into the padel and I have found the tendency to separate everything, losing the true essence of things. For example, I see how many people talk about specific shots, certain “techniques”... (components) without paying attention to the padel logic and the game situation they are in (the "whole"). What is the point of having a sharp ax (component) in Can Valentí if later I go out into the woods (the "whole") and I do not know how to use it?
The water we drink is made up of 3 components: two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen (air). When these components connect and interact, what appears is liquid water that we can use to put out the fire. On the other hand, if we threw each component of the water separately (hydrogen and oxygen) into the fireplace, what would cause the fire would become more violent. Paco Seirul·lo talks about the same idea in this video. If we had to choose a part of our body, which one would we choose? It would be hard, would not it? We want it all! This is the key to complex systems and it happens in education, sport, health...
With reference to the latter, we deal with complex problems such as diseases, breaking them down part by part. An example of this thought is the hated Covid that burdened us so much but could not with us. It is not a virus that has appeared by magic or by chance. For years, scientists have been warning us that promoting a food model based on macro-farms increases the risk of transmission of animal diseases to humans, deforestation also affects this risk. However, several world institutions pointed to the increase in meat consumption as the main cause of the appearance of unknown diseases. Well, when the virus appeared, we focused on acting on a small component of the system, the vaccine, and we did not even question the "whole": our model of life, production, consumption, food… which were the main causes. Covid appeared from the interaction of biological, social, political, economic components... If we think that it is an isolated phenomenon and we do not learn from it, it will happen again in the future more frequently.
This same way of thinking, Iaia, I have encountered throughout my educational stage. At university we separate knowledge into areas, set limits and teach them component by component: mathematics, languages, sports... When I graduated, I went out into the real world and realized that to address the problems at work I need knowledge from different fields. I guess it has something to do with the fact that we are now approaching climate change thinking that we only need to control the emissions of gases into the atmosphere —a small component— when we should be looking at the "whole": how we travel, how we eat, the way of living and consuming... that we have adopted as a society.
“Nature is not to blame for the study plans and research projects of schools and universities.”
Well, Iaia, I think I have talked enough for today. They say you do not really understand a concept until you can explain it to your grandmother and I have put myself to the test by sharing passions and doubts with you. If it does not bother you, I will keep doing it —just as I did before— to have you closer and feel that invisible thing that has no price and can not be bought, the grandfather and you know what I mean. I guess the fact of living in Finland and feeling the family close every moment is also a complex systems thing that has emerged and it is priceless.
Iaia Juanita, I hope I was able to convey one of my passions to you. Speaking of complex systems, I realized how privileged I am and how grateful I am to you. We will continue to live honoring everything invisible that cannot be bought, for the grandfather and for you. Thank you for everything and sorry for so little.
“En aquest temps tan confós amb tantes guerres i fam, em pregunto a mi mateixa: Jesús, voldries tornar?
Però si Nadal és estimar-se, ajudar-se, reunir-se i disculpar...
Aquí pots venir Jesús, a casa nostra és Nadal.“
—Joana Vilalta Foix
Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop
Subscribe for free to receive more letters of complexity.